Retrospectacle: A Neuroscience Blog

I’m about to send these questions out to Dr. Pepperberg (hopefully for next week’s Grey Matters), and wanted some feedback. Also, please suggest questions if you have some!

Q. Initially your research background was not in comparative cognition and language. How did you become interested in this field?

Q: Human language processing and production relies on specific brain structures (Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas). Are there thought to be equivalent structures in the avian brain?

Q. Why might parrots have evolved to be such superior mimics, and how would this serve them well in the wild?

Q. Do you think that Alex is representative of African Grey intelligence, or exemplary in his abilities?

Q. Do you consider your Greys pets or research subjects, and how does this distinction affect your research?

Q. Detractors of animal language and comprehension research often point out that while Greys may make word-object associations, they can not comprehend or use grammatical structure. Why is this an important distinction?

Q. Do you think that it is possible to instill an understanding of grammar in a Grey? What about any non-human animal?

Q: Have you ever noticed an instance where Alex (or another Grey) has “taught” or corrected one of his cohorts?

Q. Have you studied any other species of parrots? If so, what types of studies have you performed? How do they compare to Greys?

Q. Can Alex recognize representations of objects, like on TV or a picture?

Q. Despite the popularity of your work, many of your colleagues have been slow to accept it. Why might this be? Has it impacted your ability to get federal funding?

Q. Your Greys have shown the ability to “coin” words for unknown objects. Can you give an example of that?

Q. How did you choose the model-rival technique as the best one for teaching parrots?

Q. How is a “zero concept” different from an idea of absense, and which does Alex display?


  1. #1 Michael Anes
    November 16, 2006

    Hi Shelley,
    Lots of good questions there – I remember reading the answers to a few of them on some website or another documenting her history…
    In a related vein to your second question, I remember in grad school at Michigan State, Lauren Julius Harris did a study with a student about “footedness” in pet birds. If I remember correctly, African Greys were the strongest footed birds in the survey…

    OK, just looked up two refs from Harris…but if you check his vita there may be some related presentations.

    Snyder, P.J., & Harris, L.J. (1997). Lexicon size and footedness in the African Grey Parrot (Psittacus erithacus). Neuropsychologia, 35, 919-926.

    Harris, L.J. (1989). Footedness in parrots: Three centuries of research, theory, and mere surmise. Canadian Journal of Psychology, 43, 369-396.

  2. #2 Shelley Batts
    November 16, 2006

    Thanks Michael! Those look like great fodder for Friday Grey Matters to me.

  3. #3 David
    November 16, 2006

    I can’t seem to find a link to the actual paper right now, but Snyder et al. (1996) previously found that the Australian (woo!) Sulphur Crested Cockatoo was the only species to have a bias similar in strength to humans (82% left footed). No offence to the African Grey, of course.

  4. #4 AgnosticOracle
    November 17, 2006

    they can not comprehend or use grammatical structure

    Is this considered true? My African Grey parrot Cleo acts like she understands the difference between nouns and adjectives. One of her recent favorite words is “scary.” She says “scary bird”, “scary dog” and an assortment of other “scary [noun]” combinations, but never “scary bad” or “scary good.” She follows similar patters with other nouns and verbs. She doesn’t know what they mean. She occasionally says “grey dog” even though our dog is a black lab, but she does seem to understand the grammar.

  5. #5 Shelley Batts
    November 17, 2006

    There is quite a bit of debate as to whether they have any grasp of grammer or not. What you are describing would not classify as grammatical usage as your bird is likely just mimicing your speech. True grammer would be the ability to understand the proper order of spoken words and how their content relates to each other in a ‘modifier’ sense. Its a bit more complex than using an adjective to descrive a noun– which Alex can do to describe the color or shape of an object, or even count to a degree. The difference is being able to distinguish a difference between gramatically correct and incorrect speech and use it in a flexible way that makes consistent sense. Children go through a phase where they grasp this, around 2-4ish its solidified I think. Greys don’t really get to that point, although I’m interested to see what Pepperberg says about it. Pinker and others have dangled this (grammer) in front of animal communication researchers as the holy grail for years. Sue Savage-Rumbaugh’s work on bonobos is the closest I’ve ever seen an animal coming to grammatical comprehension.

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